For centuries, white elephants have been revered as a symbol of power and good fortune in south-east Asia. Their discovery is a sign that the nation will prosper, and its rulers are wise and just. Small wonder, then, that when one of these rare creatures was spotted near Burma’s western coast earlier this year, the country’s ruling generals sent in a special army unit to capture it.
Never mind the international condemnation of Burma’s military dictatorship, suspected war crimes or shocking levels of poverty. If a white elephant is found, so the superstition goes, then all will be well.
In the forested hills behind Ngwe Saung beach, elephants are used to haul timber. It was one of their handlers who spotted the rare albino among a herd of wild elephants in January. He reported the sighting to the head of the timber company, the military was informed and the news was quickly sent up the chain of command. According to soldiers in Ngwe Saung, Senior General Than Shwe – the country’s head – himself dispatched a company of some 50 soldiers, with an entourage of elephant handlers and veterinarians armed with tranquilliser darts.
Soe Tin, a local farmer, knew what this meant for him. The first sighting of the elephant in 2008 brought a swarm of soldiers to the area. The military commandeered the local workforce of banana farmers and charcoal sellers to assist in an unsuccessful three-month search. When the hunt resumed in January, Soe Tin was recruited again. “The village authorities demanded one person from each household,” the 41-year-old said. “We were forced to work without pay.”
The soldiers demanded that all the villages near the beach provided them with unpaid labour – a practice that is common in Burma. The men left their homes and their farms to act as guides and porters. “The soldiers ordered us around. I just did what they said. I didn’t dare speak up,” the farmer said.
The legend of the white elephant originates in tales of the birth of Buddha: a white elephant reputedly appeared before his mother and presented her with a sacred lotus flower. The ancient Burmese kings believed that white elephants were found only during the reign of good kings and that the possession of one would help a country prosper. Conversely, the death of one of these creatures could spell disaster. The demise of King Thibaw’s favourite white elephant – who lived in extravagant surroundings, adorned with diamonds and fed from a gold trough – was soon followed by the monarch’s ousting by British colonisers in 1885.